Secret Amazon research unit developing health tech with Fred Hutch: report

Amazon headquarters Seattle
Amazon's secretive research unit is also building a tool to search EHRs for potential inaccuracies and has recruited former Google and FDA engineers for its efforts, according to reports. (Amazon-Seattle campus)

More details have become public regarding Amazon’s secret “skunk works” division, which is focused on innovative pursuits that could expand the company’s reach in healthcare technology, cancer research and medical records.

According to reports from CNBC, the company’s Grand Challenge research group has been working with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to develop machine learning tools for oncology. A Fred Hutch spokesperson told CNBC that it has several early-stage projects underway with its Seattle-area tech neighbors, including Amazon, as well as Microsoft and Tableau Software, and hopes to preview them later this year.

The team, which also works under the code names 1492 or Amazon X, now totals about 50 employees following its launch in 2014. It includes ex-FDA officials, the founders of several health startups, and the founder of Google’s robotic surgery programs, Babak Parviz, who also invented Google Glass.

One project, which Grand Challenge has been developing internally for the past three years, aims to translate and double-check unstructured data from electronic health records for possibly incorrect diagnoses or missed information. Amazon has started to shop the program, Hera, around to health insurance companies.

According to internal documents acquired by CNBC, Grand Challenge falls under the purview of Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing arm. Prospective team members are chosen through an annual “Think Big” competition, involving presentations of the next big idea for the company.

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Earlier this year, Amazon brought on the FDA’s former chief informatics officer, Taha Kass-Hout, M.D., who led the openFDA initiative. As the agency’s inaugural CIO, Kass-Hout also led the precisionFDA program that fostered a collaborative approach to genomic testing references.

Amazon has previously made waves in the healthcare industry by teasing its entry into the pharmacy and drug distribution spaces. Some industry analysts believe the company could dive in as early as next year.

In January, the data and retail giant joined JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway in a new healthcare venture tailored to their own employees, to cut internal costs at the three companies. The independent healthcare company delivered few specifics and is currently in the early stages.